All posts by Eric Zweig

…it Happens

Though I’ve mostly enjoyed it (and managed to do pretty well for myself), writing books can be a very strange way to try and make a living. Remember how I was supposed to have two new books coming out this fall? (I’ve mentioned it here a time or two, I believe!) Hockey Hall of Fame True Stories and Engraved in History about the 1907 Stanley Cup champion Kenora Thistles. Remember those? Well, both books have now been postponed.

As Forrest Gump said while he was running across America (supposedly inspiring a somewhat ruder version on a bumper sticker), “…it Happens.”

The Kenora book was actually a tactical decision, and it’ll be just a short delay. With so many other hockey books due out this fall (as always), including new books about the Dawson City Stanley Cup challenge of 1905, and the history of pro hockey in Victoria from 1911 to 1926, publisher Rick Brignall thought it best to try and avoid this book getting lost in the crowd.

Obviously, this book is something of a niche interest, and the people in Kenora and Winnipeg and the scattering of really old-time hockey fans elsewhere who’ll (hopefully!) want to buy it will buy it whenever it comes out. So, it’s being pushed into late January of 2022, which will coincide with the 115th anniversary of Kenora’s Stanley Cup victory. But hey, if you were counting on Engraved in History as a present for the holidays, it is hoped it will be available for pre-order in November.

I’ll keep you posted.

As for True Stories … with the job shortages and interruption in the “chain of production” we keep hearing about in this not-quite-yet-post-COVID world, even though we met all of the deadlines on a very tight timeline, once the manuscript was sent to the printers, they told Firefly Books there was no way they could have it ready for November of 2021, and likely not until at least late January of 2022. Since this book was very much conceived as a gift book for your father/brother/uncle/grandpa at Christmas or Hanukkah, Firefly decided to hold it back until the fall of 2022.

It’s hardly the life-and-death issue so many other people have faced around the world for the past 18 months, so for someone who’s basically felt like he’s breezed through most of this Pandemic, it’s pretty hard to complain.

Besides, what can you do?

Even without COVID, publishing can be a strange industry. Remember, two years ago, when I wrote about J.T. Haxall kicking a 65-yard field goal back in 1882? At the time, I mentioned that I’d come across the story while working on a football book for National Geographic Kids. That book (It’s a Numbers Game! Football) was originally supposed to be published in the fall of 2020. Well, long before that — and completely unrelated to COVID — I was told that due to corporate restructuring at National Geographic, it was being bumped all the way to the spring of 2022!

So, over the past two years, this book has come back to me twice for updates from the 2019 and 2020 football seasons. Just yesterday it was returned to me one final time for my last notes and comments. (Sadly, the spring publishing date means there won’t be time for a final update after the current NFL season, which won’t end until about six weeks before this book should finally come out, but at least we’ll be able to add the record-breaking 66-yard field goal from this weekend.)

Again, what can you do?

At least I’ve been paid for the work on all three books (though I am still waiting for the final checks from Firefly) … and I do still have one new book that’s due in stores any day now. Hockey Hall of Fame Heroes: Scorers, Goalies and Defensemen is also from Firefly, and is the second edition (with updates and new players) of a book that was first published by them five years ago. If you’ve got a hockey fans around the ages of 9 to 12 years old, this would be a good one for them.

Speaking of younger hockey fans, right now I’m working on the fifth book in the Hockey Trivia For Kids series for Scholastic Canada. This one will also come out in the fall of 2022 but is due at the publisher this November 1 … a full 30 days earlier than any of the four previous books (which didn’t have to be delivered until mid December when I wrote the first one back in 2005). This time, COVID is the culprit again, with Scholastic worried about the chain-of-production delays brought about by the Pandemic.

What else can I say except, “… it Happens.”

Hockey and Olympic History

Last week, the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced that they had reached an agreement with the International Olympic Committee to confirm the participation of NHL players at the Beijing Winter Olympics this coming February. COVID may have the final word on that, and you can certainly argue whether or not Canadians — or anyone — should be participating at all, given the continued incarceration of the two Michaels. (But is it right to use athletes for diplomatic purposes? Would China even listen?)

Hockey, as you may know, has been a part of the Olympics since before there were the Winter Games. The Winter Olympics began in Chamonix, France, in 1924, but hockey (and figure skating) had been part of the competition four years earlier when a spring sports festival was held in April of 1920 as part of the Olympic Games held later that summer in Antwerp, Belgium.

I’ve written about the 1920 Olympics, and Canada’s first Olympic hockey team — the Winnipeg Falcons — on my web site before (on February 21, 2018 and on February 3, 2015). Still, I thought I’d use the NHL’s announcement as a chance to determine exactly when the decision was made to include hockey at Antwerp in 1920.

Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics logo and a 1924 Winter Olympics poster.

As I discovered in 2018, Antwerp had bid to host the 1920 Olympics back in 1912, but no decision was reached before the outbreak of World War I. Shortly after the Armistice on November 11, 1918, the IOC offered Antwerp the first choice to hold the Games in 1920 if the Belgians still wanted to do so. The move was seen as a way to honour the suffering of the Belgian people during the War.

Apparently, the Belgian Athletic Federation met on March 15, 1919, to discuss hosting the Olympics. It was decided to go ahead … provided the Games could be postponed until 1921. Stockholm (which had hosted in 1912) and Havana were said to be interested in hosting in 1920, and a few days later, reports would indicate that Rome, and perhaps Geneva, were also in contention. (Online sources say Amsterdam, Lyon, Atlanta, Budapest, Cleveland, and Philadelphia were in the running too.) But by April 3, 1919, it appears that Antwerp was good to go for 1920 and the city was confirmed as the Olympic host (as reported in newspapers the following day).

I also knew from previous research that the official program and schedule for the Antwerp Olympics was announced on December 16, 1919. Hockey was included for April, 1920. (Figure skating would be added later.) Still, I reasoned that couldn’t actually be the first time that anyone knew there was going to be a hockey tournament at the Olympics. But I never found an earlier date because … well … I got distracted!

I got distracted because I discovered that on Friday, December 26, 1919, the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, entered a bid to host the 1924 Summer Olympics. This would appear to make Halifax the first Canadian city to go after the Olympics, well before Montreal landed the Summer Games of 1976 and even before that city had bid back in 1929 to host the Winter Games of 1932.

New York Tribune, December 28, 1919, and the Calgary Herald, January 15, 1920.

Unfortunately, I don’t know of any Halifax newspapers with archives that are searchable online, but various other newspapers across Canada and the United States confirm the “Blue Nose” bid in the following days. The New York Tribune on Sunday, December 28, 1919, and The Globe in Toronto on December 29 note that the Halifax Olympic bid “follows the decision reached at a provincial convention in this city early in the month.” And, apparently, Halifax also wanted to host an International Exposition (World’s Fair) in 1924 — long before Montreal hosted Expo in 1967.

Both the Olympic and World’s Fair bids would be confirmed on January 14, 1920. “That all facilities required for the Olympic games, to be held at Halifax in 1924, will be provided, is the guarantee which the executive board of the International Exposition for Nova Scotia has cabled to the authorities in Europe…” reported the Calgary Herald the next day.

Yet by March of 1920, it was apparent that not all was well:

Halifax, Nova Scotia, March 11. – Halifax business men who are interested in the proposal to try to obtain the 1924 Olympic games for this city, are conducting a preliminary canvass to determine the best means of meeting the housing problem. Unless conditions are greatly improved, it is hardly possible that Halifax will be selected, newspapers have pointed out. It is claimed that the present facilities would hardly provide quarters for 8,000 visitors, whereas it is estimated that 100,000 would have to be accommodated if the Olympiad were awarded to the Maritime city. One plan under discussion is to provide great temporary dormitories around the city to supplement the buildings and hotels which are being planned for construction before 1924.

That story appeared in The Bismarck Tribune (Bismarck, North Dakota) on March 11, 1920.

It’s the last story I’ve found about Halifax and the 1924 Olympics.

Obviously, Halifax didn’t win the bid. In the end, the city wasn’t even in the running when Paris was chosen.

It was stated for a while that the host for the 1924 Summer Olympics would be selected at the 1920 Antwerp Games. Instead, the decision was put off until a meeting of the IOC in Lausanne, Switzerland, on June 3, 1921. By then, Paris had emerged as the favourite in a competition that also included Amsterdam (who would instead be awarded the 1928 Games), Barcelona, Los Angeles (1932), Prague, and Rome.

Paris, which had first hosted the Olympics in 1904, will host for the third time in 2024, with Los Angeles getting its third in 2028 (L.A. also hosted in 1984) followed by Brisbane, Australia, in 2032. After the Winter Games in Beijing in 2022, next up will be the Italian cities of Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo in 2026. The host city for the 2030 Winter Olympics is expected to be announced in 2023. Vancouver and Quebec City are said to be among the cities considering bids.

Wanna Bet?

There hasn’t been much said lately about the news coming out at the end of July that the NHL will investigate claims made in a series of tweets by the estranged wife of Evander Kane that Kane not only bet on NHL games but that he had thrown a number of games while playing for the San Jose Sharks. Kane is known to have a gambling problem, and to be deeply in debt. Still these accusations have yet to be proven. But legal gambling is a big business, so sports leagues continue to cozy up to casinos and online betting sites, and the Canadian government has now legalized single-sports wagering effective tomorrow.

Hockey has no history of gambling scandals to rival anything like the Black Sox Scandal of 1919 when eight members of the Chicago White Sox were banned for life from baseball for conspiring with gamblers to rig that year’s World Series. (This was actually just the biggest of many gambling scandals to plague baseball in the 1910s and ’20s.) Still, hockey has had its own problems. Most notably, in 1948, when Billy Taylor and Don Gallinger of the Boston Bruins were given lifetime suspensions (eventually rescinded, but not until 1970) for feeding information about their team to gamblers and for betting on games. Possibly even against their own team. Unlike Kane or the Black Sox, there was never any indication that the two players had conspired to throw games.

Perhaps the first gambling scandal in hockey history occurred in Toronto back in 1915.

Ottawa Journal, February 23, 1915.

A story reported out of Montreal on February 22, 1915, appeared in several newspapers across Canada the next day. It was about bribes (and other efforts) made to players in the National Hockey Association (forerunner of the NHL) by gamblers. The news broke when players on the Quebec Bulldogs told their story while passing through Montreal on their way back home after a game in Toronto. The story claimed that Harry Mummery of the Bulldogs, and team trainer Dave Beland, had been offered bribes before a Saturday night game on February 20, 1915, to let the Toronto Shamrocks win.

Mummery was said to have been offered $1,000 to throw the game. Beland was reportedly offered $50 to deliver a spiked drink to a few Quebec players. Both refused, and reported the incidents to the team manager, Mike Quinn, who reported it to NHA president Emmett Quinn.

Newspapers noted that it was not the first time something like this had happened in Toronto. Another report mentioned attempts to bribe players on the Canadiens and the Toronto Blueshirts. No names were mentioned, but Harry Cameron of the Blueshirts — a future Hockey Hall of Famer — was cited in a different vein.

Harry Cameron of the Blueshirts and Toronto’s Mutual Street Arena.

“Last week,” said president Quinn, “a gambler in Toronto invited Cameron of the Toronto team out, and induced him to break training [ie, got him drunk] with the result that he was unfit to play that night. It was found out the gambler and his friend had bet a large amount on the opposing team.”

Nothing much really came out of all this in 1915. Lol Solman, owner of the Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, believed the stories had been greatly exaggerated. Still, the Toronto Telegram on February 23, reported that President Quinn had instructed all NHA managers “that any player shall be expelled who has been proven guilty of offering, agreeing, conspiring, or attempting to lose any game of hockey or in being interested in any wager thereon.” Quinn vowed that he was going to take action to stop this sort of thing.

Gambling may or may not have been stamped out at Toronto’s Arena Gardens and in the NHA back in 1915, but it would certainly be prevalent in the NHL at Maple Leaf Gardens in future. If there wasn’t gambling at the Gardens right from its opening in 1931, there would certainly be a so-called “bull ring” of bookies operating from a promenade behind the blue seats at one end of the rink soon enough.

A Chicago newspaper called Collyer’s Eye and The Baseball World provided plenty of details in an issue on December 1, 1934. The paper noted that reports on hockey gambling were up all around the NHL early in the 1934–35 season. “There are even rumors that efforts have been made to [bribe] some of the goaltend[er]s.”

Montreal was said to be the long-time center of hockey gambling, but it was much quieter there that season than New York. Detroit was labeled as the new hot gambling mecca, with Boston only lukewarm. Nothing is said about Chicago, or St. Louis (where the Ottawa Senators had recently relocated), but it was noted that there was plenty of action on NHL games in non-league centers such as Kansas City, Missouri, and the Minnesota cities of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth. There were plenty of details about Toronto too:

“Toronto is a spot where one can get a bet down at any time. In fact, in the bull ring at Maple Leaf Gardens they will give you anything you want in the line of wagering accommodations, though they deal the nuts on Leafs. You can bet on goals, the most shots, or penalties. One favorite wager is that Leafs will score as much in one period as the other team does in the whole game.”

Other stories from other sources indicate Toronto was so rife with gambling that fans were known to place bets on whether the next spectator to be hit with a puck in the stands would be a man or a woman!

Babe Pratt and Maple Leaf Gardens.

Efforts weren’t made to clean out the bull ring in Toronto until 1946, after Maple Leafs star defenseman Babe Pratt was expelled from the NHL for gambling. (Pratt would be reinstated after missing five games and forfeiting his salary from January 29 through February 14.)

But even at that, in an article about the Gardens in Maclean’s magazine on March 1, 1958, John Clare wrote: “in an emergency, as at playoff time when the public need for the service is greatest, the bookies have been known to drift back and ply their trade with the same discretion and high ethical standards that made them a tradition in less censorious times.”

For more on the bull ring, and the Toronto gambling scandals of 1915 and 1946 (and plenty more on a wide range of subjects!), look for my new book from Firefly Books, Hockey Hall of Fame: True Stories, which is due out this fall but already available for pre-ordering. For more on Evander Kane, keep an eye on the sports news. And if you’re a fan in Canada who loves to risk your money, it should be even easier for you now…

Why Don’t You Try

I may have mentioned once or twice already that I have a new book about the Kenora Thistles coming out in November. It’s called Engraved in History and it’s being done by Brignall Media, a local Kenora publisher. (I also have Hockey Hall of Fame: True Stories coming out with Firefly Publishing this fall.) The Thistles won the Stanley Cup back in 1907, making Kenora the smallest town ever to win hockey’s top prize. It’s a good story…

I’ve never really been able to explain (to myself or to anyone else) why I find the years before and after the turn of the 20th century to be so fascinating. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t really want to live there — “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” — but I do find so many of the stories to be fascinating!

An ad for Game Two in the Montreal Gazette on January 21, 1907.

There was no television or radio back in 1907, but fans could follow their favourite teams through many different newspapers. And when big games were played in distant cities, fans would gather (in rinks, or in theaters, in hotel ballrooms; even at the barber shop) to listen to telegraphed bulletins sent from rinkside to newspapers all across the country. The play-by-play in those bulletins could be remarkably similar to a radio or television broadcast today.

The Thistles won the Stanley Cup by defeating the Montreal Wanderers 8–6 on January 21, 1907, to sweep their best-of-three series. In reading reports of the game in newspapers on January 22, 1907, the Manitoba Free Press (which would become the Winnipeg Free Press in 1931) was among the many newspapers to run the copy of those play-by-play bulletins. In reporting on the crowd filling up the Montreal Arena prior to the game, the Free Press noted that “everyone is whistling and singing ‘Why Don’t You Try’ with the band playing it.”

From the Manitoba Free Press of January 22, 1907.

I was, of course, intrigued!

Needless to say, when I was finished writing the book, I did some poking around.

Turns out that “Why Don’t You Try” was a popular song from a 1905 New York theater production called “The Belle of Avenue A” starring Elfie Fay.

Now, unless you’re an even bigger fan of early New York theater history than I am of early Canadian hockey history, you’ve probably never heard of Elfie Fay. But she was big in her day, if only for a little while.

Born on January 11, 1879, Elfie was the daughter of vaudeville star Hugh Fay of Barry and Fay. He was described as an Irish comedian. Elfie was a redhead with a habit of ad-libbing on stage and pulling faces. She sounds like an early incarnation of Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett, although her career never got very far. (She is described in the book American Musical Theater: A Chronicle by Gerald Bordman as “a promising Broadway belter who never fulfilled her promise.”)

From the New York Tribune, January 7, 1906.

If I’m putting this all together correctly, “The Belle of Avenue A” (which she herself was actually known as) was a show created for Elfie and built around a song of the same name that she had already made popular in an earlier Broadway show. In this one, Elfie played Maggie Burns, a poor girl temporarily on the bread line who agrees to pose as the wife of socialite George Fairfax, who must be married in order to collect his inheritance. Wackiness ensues, I would assume! (You can check out the lyrics of “Why Don’t You Try” if you’d like and you can listen to it too.)

Elfie seems to have been quite popular for a while, though apparently as much for her many engagements as anything else! (Including one in 1902 to Sir Thomas Lipton, of British tea and yachting fame, which she herself actually denied). Still, Elfie was once quoted as saying: “A woman can fall in love as often as she encounters a man who is able by superior qualities of heart and mind to inspire such love.”

Reviews and stories of Elfie and her show in the New York Tribune,
New York Evening World, and New York Times from October 10, 1905.

But it seems that Elfie wasn’t actually very lucky in love. Married twice, the first ended in divorce after only three years. The second ended when her new husband died early in 1921 just three months after their wedding. Samuel Armstrong Benner is said to have been a wealthy steal executive, but Elfie inherited only $500 from his estate.

Later moving out to California with an actor-director brother named Hugh for their father, Elfie Fay appeared in a handful of movies between 1924 and 1927, but died of tuberculosis on September 16, 1927 at the age of only 48. (Not 46, as the clipping below says.) Her father Hugh had died at age 81 in 1925, while brother Hugh also died young in 1926. Elfie was still enough of a name at the time of her death that the Associated Press picked up on the story and reported it in newspapers across the United States.

Obituary in the Brooklyn Times-Union from September 19, 1927.

What does any of this have to do with the Kenora Thistles or hockey?

Nothing at all. (Elfie’s story won’t appear in the book.) It’s just an example of why the stories from the early days can be so much fun to dig into … even if the music can be pretty awful!

In the Good Old Summer Time

It’s July 28. There’s plenty of other sports going on. The Olympics. Baseball. Football training camps. And the NBA draft is approaching. But even in the middle of summer, hockey manages to make headlines. There was the expansion draft a week ago, the regular NHL draft a few days later, and all the transactions around those. Now, free agency opens today.

Sure, COVID concerns pushed back these dates this year, but – in Canada, especially – it’s not uncommon to be talking hockey in summer time. It hasn’t been for a long time.

How long?

How about 118 years!

On July 28, 1903, (a Tuesday all those years ago), on a sports page in the Winnipeg Tribune filled with stories about baseball, boxing, tennis, soccer, and rowing, there was a small headline reading: RAT PORTAGE HOCKEY CLUB.

Rat Portage, for those who don’t know, is the original name of the northwestern Ontario town of Kenora. It came from a quick English translation of an Ojibwe phrase meaning “the Road to the Country of the Muskrat.” And the hockey club – the Thistles – (as some of you may remember), is the subject of a new book of mine — Engraved in History: Kenora Thistles and the Stanley Cup — that will be published in November. You’ll hear more about that, as well as a second new book for the fall (Hockey Hall of Fame: True Stories), in these pages in the coming months.

The Kenora Thistles would win the Stanley Cup in 1907, but the team dates back to the early 1890s, and first played for hockey’s top prize in March of 1903. That was four months before this article in the Tribune, which ran five months before the next hockey season would even start. But several Thistles hockey players were rowers in the summer, and some had recently been to Winnipeg for that city’s annual regatta. A Tribune reporter took the time to talk with Nelson Schnarr (a Rat Portage dentist and president of the Thistles hockey team who had attended the regatta) about his thoughts on his team’s chances of repeating as champions of the Manitoba and Northwest Hockey Association. Schnarr spoke of his high hopes; hence the sub-headline noting that he was “Sanguine” (optimistic, or bullish) “Over Prospects.”

[Photo licensed from the collection of the Glenbow Archives. Not to be reused.]
Future Hockey Hall of Famers Tommy Phillips (first from the left) and Si Griffis (second) played for the Thistles in winter and were with the Rat Portage Rowing Club in summer. They are joined here by Bob Rose (a goalie) and Norman MacDonald.

I came across the Tribune story about a year ago when I was in the early stages of writing the first draft. I delivered the revised manuscript two weeks ago. What follows is an excerpt from the introduction to the book:

If you know the story of the Stanley Cup champion Kenora Thistles you probably know it as one of the greatest underdog stories in Canadian sports.

And it is.

Sort of.

In January of 1907, the Thistles, from a town of approximately 6,000 people, travelled to Canada’s largest city, with a population of close to half-a-million (the entire country had only about 6.5 million people then), and defeated the defending champion Montreal Wanderers right there on their home ice.

But it wasn’t as if a semi-pro baseball team from Pierre, South Dakota, suddenly showed up in New York City and beat the Yankees in the World Series. No. The Kenora Thistles, in their heyday, were known right across North America as a hockey powerhouse. Yes, they were the smallest of small-market teams, even in 1907, but they reached their great success mainly with a group of home-grown superstars that was supported by their entire community.

The full article from July 28, 1903, plus a photograph of Dr. Nelson Schnarr
during World War I. According to the Kenora Great War Project web site,
Schnarr had been a member of a local militia since 1896.

In many ways, the Kenora Thistles were like another small-market team of more recent vintage: the Wayne Gretzky-era Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s. Although Kenora was much smaller than Edmonton was, there are a great many similarities. Like the Oilers, the Thistles were a supremely talented team with a roster full of future Hall of Famers. They played an up-tempo, offensive game that may have put off traditionalists even in their day, but delighted most fans and impressed their rivals. But for both teams, success soon made it impossible to afford to keep their best players.

For much of Kenora’s Stanley Cup climb, hockey was still an amateur sport, so there wasn’t an issue with salaries. Still, the competition for players could be fierce. And then, the 1906–07 season marked the first year that Canadian hockey teams were openly allowed to pay their players. Contracts in this era were for no more than $2,000 which is certainly a far cry from the multi-million dollars of today, but the payroll very quickly became too much.

It wasn’t just the salary structure that made hockey in the early 20th so much different from the game we know today. The players were smaller and lighter, and they played much shorter seasons on natural ice that could melt into slush in warm weather. There was little protective equipment, yet the game was plenty rough.

Tommy Phillips, the team’s top star, played in Montreal during the winter of 1902-03.
Roxy Beaudro and Tom Hooper rowed in Winnipeg during the summer of 1903.

Along with the addition of a rover, the other positions we know today still existed in the early days of hockey, but defensemen were called “point” and “cover point.” Rules and customs were different too. Without forward passing, skating and stickhandling were the main ways to advance the puck. Goalies had to remain standing at all times. And despite the extra man in the lineup, rosters were small. The seven starters were expected to play the entire 60 minutes, with substitutions generally made only in cases of severe injury. Obviously, the game would appear much slower to fans today, but to those in the stands back then, hockey was already considered the fastest and most exciting game there was.

Hockey fans circa 1907 didn’t have dedicated cable TV channels. They didn’t have 24-hour talk radio, twitter accounts, or apps for their smartphones to keep them up-to-the-minute with their favourite players and teams. They did have a lot of newspapers to read, and although there was usually only a page or two of sports news, the amount of hockey coverage was staggering. The hockey season lasted only the three calendar months of winter from late December until late March, but the gossip already ran all year long! It’s amazing how many rumours hockey fans could read about, and how much in-fighting and back-stage drama was going on between the teams, the leagues, and the players.

If you read the book – and I hope you will! – I think you’ll see that, the more some things change, the more they stay the same.

Canadien Cup History

I grew up a Leafs fan and still consider them to be my favourite team — although that means a lot less to me at age 57 than it did when I was 17 … or 7! It’s been a long time since I would say I’ve bled blue and white. It was probably in 1989 (I’d have been 25 at the time) when I made my peace with the fact that the Montreal Canadiens were actually the greatest franchise in hockey history. (Though I’ve yet to make similar peace with baseball and the New York Yankees, whom I still despise!)

So, it’s only with a sense of history — not jealousy — that I consider the Canadiens’ amazing run through the playoffs so far this summer. What’s going to happen next, starting tonight against Tampa Bay? I don’t really like the idea of watching hockey in June, never mind July, but I’m too curious to turn away now!

Montreal Gazette, June 10, 1993. The Canadiens (and Canada’s) last Stanley Cup.

Who are the most unlikely Stanley Cup champions in NHL history? Probably the 1937–38 Chicago Black Hawks. With a regular-season record of only 14-25-9 in a 48-game season, Chicago barely squeaked into the playoff but then upset the Canadiens, the New York Americans, and the Maple Leafs to win the Cup that spring. While 14 other sub-.500 teams have reached the Final (none since 1991), the only one to win the Stanley Cup was Toronto in 1948-49. The Leafs’ record was 22-25-13 that year, but they had won the Cup in each of the two previous springs, and almost seemed bored by the regular-season before coming to life in the playoffs.

“Anybody who knew us, knew the Leafs were much better than we showed.…” said Howie Meeker in his 1994 autobiography Golly Gee It’s Me. “We weren’t a below .500 club really. Anybody who considered us that was way out of their minds.”

Although the NHL likes to present Montreal’s record of 24-21-11 as if it’s actually over .500, overtime and shootout losses can distort what’s really a loss these days. Still, the Canadiens finished 18th in the league’s overall standings! Given that only 16 of the NHL’s 31 teams (soon to be 32) make the playoffs, there were two teams this year that didn’t qualify in their own divisions despite having better records than Montreal did. It’s kind of crazy that they’ve reach the Stanley Cup Final! There are not a lot of underdog stories in the history of this great franchise, but if Montreal pulls it off against the Lightning now, it’ll rank pretty highly among the NHL’s all-time unlikely winners. And pretty much be the most unlikely winner in Canadiens history.

Montreal Gazette, April 19, 1971. Beating Boston early set up a Stanley Cup victory.

I’m not analytical enough in my watching of hockey to offer any insight into how the Canadiens have done what they’ve done. So, instead, I’m just going to look back at the Montreal teams that have reached the Stanley Cup Finals 36 times now (twice before the NHL was even founded) and won it 24 times (once prior to 1917–18) to see how this year’s team stacks up.

Many people, it seems, are comparing this year’s Montreal team to 1993, which is the last time the Canadiens (or any Canadian team) won the Stanley Cup. But the comparison is only valid in the styles of those two teams. Montreal had 102 points in 1992-93. They were the fifth-best team in the NHL, although only the third best in their own division. Like this year, they fell behind in their first-round matchup (2-0 behind Quebec), but rallied to win. The fact that the fourth-place Buffalo Sabres (86 points) stunningly swept first-place Boston (109 points) certainly helped clear the path to a division title, and the New York Islanders’ shocking upset of the powerful two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins cleared the way to a Conference championship. But once they reached the Stanley Cup Final, Montreal was hardly an underdog against Los Angeles and beat Wayne Gretzky’s Kings pretty easily.

The Canadiens won a record 10 games in overtime during the playoffs that year. It was a pretty remarkable run. As the team’s star goalie Patrick Roy told NHl.com in 2018 on the 25th anniversary of the 1993 Cup win: “The Canadiens didn’t always have the best team but they always had a team that was willing to work hard and put in the effort to win.”

The Brooklyn Citizen, April 4, 1930. (No Gazette headline was nearly as good!)

Seven years earlier, in 1986, the Canadiens had also won an unlikely Stanley Cup title. That year’s team still had future Hall of Famers Bob Gainey and Larry Robinson from the 1970s dynasty, but the key playoff performer (as he would be in 1993) was goalie Patrick Roy, then in his rookie season.

The Canadiens were eighth overall in the NHL standings with 87 points (40-33-7) but a long way back of top teams Edmonton (119 points), Philadelphia (110), and Washington (107). A slew of upsets cleared the way for Montreal and Calgary to reach the Finals that year, and though Calgary had 88 points to and finished seventh overall that season, the only thing really surprising about the fact that the Canadiens beat the Flames to win the Cup was that it only took them five games. An unlikely win for sure, but not really an upset by the end. Still, the 1985-86 Canadiens are probably the weakest team in franchise history to win the Stanley Cup, so certainly an underdog story.

When Calgary and Montreal met again three years later in 1989, the Flames were the NHL’s top team with 117 points and the Canadiens were second with 115. Calgary won the Cup that year, winning the finale at the Forum. It marks the only time the Canadiens lost the Stanley Cup on home ice, which was no doubt upsetting … but the series wasn’t an upset.

The Montreal Daily Mail, March 31, 1916. The Canadiens’ first Stanley Cup.

In terms of Montreal Stanley Cup surprises, 1971 was certainly unexpected. But, really, the biggest shock came in the first round. The Boston Bruins set all sorts of single-season records that year, leading the NHL with 121 points on a record of 57-14-7. Phil Esposito had 76 goals and 152 points. Bobby Orr had 102 assists. The Bruins had won the Stanley Cup the previous year, and they were ever better now. The Canadiens were actually the NHL’s fourth-best team that season with 97 points, but were decidedly the underdog in their quarterfinal series with Boston. Rookie goalie Ken Dryden, and veteran captain Jean Beliveau in his final season, spearheaded a stunning upset. Beating the 28-34-16 Minnesota North Stars in the semifinals was as it should have been. Defeating a star-studded Chicago team that had 107 points in the regular season to win the Stanley Cup was certainly an upset, although not on the scale of beating Boston. But that year’s Montreal roster was loaded with future Hall of Famers who’d mostly won several Stanley Cup titles already. They were, in actual fact, a very good team.

Interestingly, an earlier Montreal Stanley Cup surprise had also come at the expense of a powerhouse Boston team under remarkably similar circumstances. The Bruins won their first Stanley Cup in 1928–29, and followed up with a record-setting season. Boston went 38-5-1 during the 44-game schedule in 1929-30 for an .875 winning percentage that is still the best in NHL history. (In a modern 82-game season, the mark would translate into 70 wins and 144 points!) Eddie Shore was that team’s Bobby Orr, and Cooney Weiland smashed scoring records just as Phil Esposito would later. Boston had not lost two games in a row all season, yet when the Bruins met the underdog Canadiens in the best-of-three Stanley Cup Final, Montreal swept the series. Having Howie Morenz — probably the greatest player of his era — certainly helped. Montreal also had a few other future Hall of Famers and previous Cup winners that time too.

Mostly, though, throughout their history, the Canadiens have been hockey’s most dominant team and their many championships don’t hold a lot of surprises. Nor do their few losses. Read on, if you care to…

Montreal Gazette, April 21, 1947. A rare upset of the Canadiens for the Cup.

The Canadiens won their first Stanley Cup in 1916. Back then, the champions of the National Hockey Association (forerunner to the NHL) played the champions of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. Because it could take six days to travel across the continent by train, the entire series was played in the East one year and the West the next. Vancouver had so dominated Ottawa in winning the Cup in 1915 that many thought the calibre of play in the PCHA was above that in the NHA. So, perhaps Montreal was considered an underdog against the Portland Rosebuds in 1916. But they did get to play the entire series at home, and the Canadiens won the best-of-five series in five games. If this was an upset, it was only a minor one.

A year later, Montreal visited Seattle for the 1917 Stanley Cup Final. The Metropolitans beat the Canadiens in four games. Seattle’s win may have been a little easier than experts expected, but Montreal’s loss was hardly a shock. Then again, the Canadiens beat the Mets two games to one in an exhibition series in San Francisco a week later, and team owner George Kennedy felt it proved that his Canadiens were better. When the two teams met again in Seattle in 1919, the series was even with two wins and a tie for each team when the final game was cancelled because of The Spanish Flu.

By 1924, it was pretty clear the calibre of play in the NHL was better than that in the western pro leagues. It was also clear that the home team had a pretty strong advantage in these East-West matchups. So the fact that the Canadiens took two straight games from both the Vancouver Maroons and the Calgary Tigers meant the Stanley Cup probably went to the team that deserved it. By the same token, Montreal’s loss to the Victoria Cougars in British Columbia in 1925 can hardly be considered an upset.

Montreal Gazette, April 15, 1960. The fifth straight Stanley Cup championship.

After beating Boston in 1930, the Canadiens eliminated the Bruins again in perhaps a minor upset in their semifinal series in 1931. Chicago battled Montreal harder than expected in the Stanley Cup Final, but the Canadiens won the series as expected.

The 13-year gap between Canadiens Cups in 1931 and 1944 was the longest drought in team history prior to the 28 years Montreal has now gone since winning in 1993. The 1943–44 Canadiens had lost fewer players to military service in World War II than other NHL teams. (The number of military deferments due to essential service jobs away from the rink angered other NHL owners, particularly Conn Smythe in Toronto.) Montreal was a dominating 38-7-5 during the 50-game season. They beat Toronto in five games in the semifinals before sweeping Chicago in the Final. No surprises there. The Canadiens were nearly as dominant again in 1944-45, but were stunned by the Maple Leafs in the first round of the playoffs. An upset, for sure … but not in the Stanley Cup Final.

Montreal Gazette, May 3, 1967. Losing to the Leafs in Canada’s Centennial year.

The War was over by the 1945–46 season. Montreal slipped some, but still finished first overall. No playoff upsets this year, as the Canadiens once again needed only nine games to win the Stanley Cup. A year later, Montreal finished on top of the standings again, but a rebuilt, post-War Maple Leafs team beat the Canadiens in a six-game Final for one of the few times in franchise history that an underdog team beat Montreal for a Stanley Cup upset.

Amazingly, the Canadiens reached the Stanley Cup Final for 10 straight years from 1951 through 1960. Montreal’s loss to Toronto in 1951 was as it should be; the Leafs were much stronger that year. Detroit was clearly the better team too when the Red Wings beat the Canadiens in 1952, 1954 and 1955. The biggest shock in Montreal defeating Boston in 1953 was that the Bruins had eliminated Detroit, while the Canadiens were definitely favourites during their record streak of five straight Cup victories when they beat Detroit (1956), Boston (1957, 1958) and Toronto (1959, 1960).

Montreal Gazette, May 11, 1979. After beating the Bruins in the semifinals,
defeating the Rangers for the Stanley Cup was pretty much a foregone conclusion.

Montreal might have won five in a row again in the late 1960s, winning as they should have against Chicago (1965) and Detroit (1966) and then defeating St. Louis twice after expansion in 1968 and 1969. Only that pesky loss to Toronto in 1967 — which joins 1947 as the only two years the Canadiens reached the Final and then lost when they were definitely the favourite — upset that dynasty. And if 1971 marks one of the rare occasions when Montreal won the Stanley Cup in an underdog role, wins by the Canadiens in 1973, 1976, 1977, 1978 and 1979 stand as one of the most dominating stretches in hockey history.

All in all in Montreal, it’s a pretty remarkable history.

From New York City to Vancouver Island

Just because this is a Stanley Cup story about teams from New York and Montreal, don’t go reading into it that I’m predicting the Islanders and Canadiens to reach the Final. (Then again, if it happens to be the two of them facing off against each other two weeks or so from now, remember where you read it!)

No, this is really just an excuse by me to spin a story out of a recent query about Lester Patrick’s sons, Lynn Patrick and Murray (Muzz) Patrick, scratching their names onto the Stanley Cup as kids when they found the trophy in the basement of their family home in Victoria, British Columbia. The questions was, had it happened in 1925 — when Lester’s Victoria Cougars had won it — or in 1928 — after Lester’s New York Rangers won it.

The most famous incident from the 1928 Stanley Cup was when Rangers coach Lester Patrick was forced to take over in goal in Game 2 after an injury to Lorne Chabot .

I’d always heard the story as 1925, and though some stories say 1928, the evidence turned out to be highly in favour of the earlier year, when Lester Patrick was the owner, coach, and general manager of the Cougars. Still, that didn’t stop me from doing plenty of poking around into 1928, when it seems extremely unlikely that as the coach and GM of the Rangers, he’d had the chance to bring the Stanley Cup home to Victoria.

Muzz Patrick told the story of scratching his name into the Stanley Cup
as a boy after winning it himself with the New York Rangers in 1940.

Many of you know that Lester Patrick was a main character in the first book I ever wrote, an historical novel called Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada. So, for me, any chance to read up on old stories about Lester is like reading letters from an old friend. Lester was quite a bit in the news when the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1928, so there was no shortage of stories.

The 1928 Stanley Cup Final between the New York Rangers and the Montreal Maroons was played entirely at the Forum in Montreal. (The Rangers, as would often be the case when the NHL playoffs rolled around, had to evacuate Madison Square Garden for the annual appearance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus). After the Rangers won the best-of-five series with a 2–1 victory in the final game on Saturday, April 14, 1928, they brought the Cup back to New York with them. On April 16, the team was paraded “in motor cars, preceded and followed by a special corps of motorcycle cops,” from Madison Square Garden to City Hall, where they met with New York Mayor Jimmy Walker.

The Rangers with Mayor Jimmy Walker (and a story from the Montreal Gazette).

“There we sat,” Lester recalled with a laugh in a story in the Vancouver Sun on May 5, 1928, while visiting from Victoria, “with banners strung along the sides, roaring through the traffic jams, lords of the universe for the time, at least. They paraded us to the city hall and back again in one quarter the time ordinary traffic could have done. The boys got a great kick out of that.”

Lester hadn’t had nearly as much fun getting out of the Forum after the Rangers’ victory over the Maroons.

A different photograph, as shown in the New York Daily News on April 17, 1928.

“I had to fight my way through a yelling mob to the bus, 40 minutes after the game had concluded,” Lester said. “It was a very partisan crowd, naturally. They had figured the Maroons were a cinch, and they couldn’t take the defeat gracefully for the moment.”

Indeed, the crowd in Montreal had not been happy.

Heavy favourites over the Rangers, especially with all the games at home, Montrealers had not expected the series to go the limit, and when it did, the Maroons dominated play in game five, outshooting the Rangers 38-14. Still, they were beaten 2-1. The referees certainly didn’t put their whistles away in this one, with plenty of penalties called. But that wasn’t what upset the fans.

Headlines from the Montreal Gazette after the Rangers’ victory.

Early in the third period, with the Rangers up 1–0 thanks to a Frank Boucher goal late in the first period, the Maroons appeared to tie the score. Their goal was called back, however, because referee Mike Rodden ruled the play was offside. Montreal fans, according to the Gazette in its Monday recap of the game, “vented their ill-feelings against the arbiter by heaving everything that they could pry loose. The ice was littered as it has never been before.”

The Gazette detailed an “odd assortment of articles that was heaved on the ice.” There were pennies according to some sources, and bottles, one of which hit a player, but didn’t hurt him. “Winter hats were mingled with new spring felts,” said the Gazette, and “one young lady hobbled out after the game with only one silver slipper on, the other having been hurled out to the ice.”

Headlines from the New York Daily News.

It took a cleaning crew seven minutes to clear the mess, and they had “no sooner made the surface playable when a spectator hurled a chair from a box seat, narrowly missing those in front of the promenade.” The game was further delayed while the chair-tosser was removed from the rink.

The delay apparently took some wind out of the sails of the Maroons, and gave the Rangers a chance to catch their breath. With just under five minutes to go, Boucher scored again to up the lead to 2-0, and, despite a late Montreal goal, New York held on for the victory. But the fans weren’t finished being angry. When referee Rodden failed to pass through the lobby of the Forum on his way out (he apparently left quickly, through a side exit), a small mob turned its attention to NHL president Frank Calder instead. Calder was hustled safely into the Forum business office while a group of ushers “quickly terminated the display of rowdyism.” Lester Patrick had either fought his way through that same rowdy crowd in the lobby on his way to the team bus; or else they had taken their anger outside.

The Cartier Building in New York City, circa 1920.

Later that evening, the Rangers and the Maroons shared a peaceful meal together at the Windsor Hotel, where the Stanley Cup was presented to the visitors.

Back in New York two days later, after being received by Mayor Walker at City Hall in the afternoon, the Rangers were dined at the apartment of William F. Carey, vice president of Madison Square Garden in the evening. Between engagements, wherever the players went, they were said to have been greeted by admirers all anxious to see the Stanley Cup.

The Cartier Building in New York City, circa 2020.

A few days later, Lester Patrick left New York to return home to Victoria. The Stanley Cup stayed behind, being displayed for a few days in the window of the Fifth Avenue jewellers Cartier & Co., who would create a new silver band to add to the trophy to commemorate the Rangers’ first hockey championship.

Drought and Droughter

Well, the Maple Leafs lost. Again. There was still a long way to go, but there will be no Stanley Cup win in Toronto this year. Again. Just like there hasn’t been since 1967. Haven’t even reached the Finals since then. The Leafs haven’t even won a playoff series since 2004. So, Toronto goes on to Year #55 without a Stanley Cup title, which is the longest drought in NHL history, surpassing the 54 years from 1940 to 1994 that the New York Rangers went without.

Still, when it comes to Stanley Cup droughts, the Leafs are a long way from the longest in hockey history. There’s another city that dwarfs even the drought of 71 years (1945 to 2016) the Chicago Cubs had between World Series appearances, and even the 106 years (dating back to 1908) between Cubs victories. That record drought belongs to … Winnipeg.

Sure, the city didn’t even have an NHL team for long stretches of time, but no team from the Manitoba capital has even played for the Stanley Cup since March of 1908, when (coincidentally) the Winnipeg Maple Leafs were crushed 11-5 and 9-3 by the Montreal Wanderers in a best-of-three-series. The Winnipeg Victorias were Stanley Cup champions in 1896 and 1901, and in that early challenge era when the prized trophy was open to leagues all across the country, they last won it in a successful title defense in late January of 1902. The Victorias defeated the Toronto Wellingtons. That 1902 series marks the first time a Toronto team ever played for the Stanley Cup and the last time a Winnipeg team ever won it. And with the Leafs loss to the Canadiens, it continues to mark the only time that teams representing Toronto and Winnipeg have met in a playoff at hockey’s highest level.

Back at the turn-of-the-20th-century, Winnipeg was a major hockey hotbed. Second only to Montreal. Toronto had plenty of teams then, but the caliber of play in the Ontario Hockey Association was considered weaker than that of Manitoba and Quebec. (Ottawa played in the otherwise Quebec-based Canadian Amateur Hockey League.) Still, the Toronto Wellingtons were senior champions of the OHA in 1900 and 1901, and local backers of the team liked their chances against the Victorias.

Fans elsewhere felt otherwise.

“The Toronto press is still heaping honors on the Wellingtons at the rate of several columns per day and the Stanley Cup is all but on exhibition in the Queen City,” mocked the Ottawa Citizen on January 18, 1902. “There is going to be an unhappy period for those (Toronto) boosters when the Tin Dukes get up against real hockey players in Winnipeg.” (The “Tin Dukes” crack was a shot at the team’s nickname — the Iron Dukes — from the Duke of Wellington for whom they were named.)

The Toronto Wellingtons, circa 1902. The large cup in the center is
the Harold A. Wilson Trophy signifying the championship of Toronto.

Many hockey players — indeed, many athletes in all sports — in this era of amateurism came from well-off families. The Victorias were mainly the sons of Winnipeg’s business elite, with many prominent citizens among their backers. In Toronto, most of the Wellingtons worked in banks or for insurance companies. The OHA was the largest hockey league in the country and rigidly enforced the amateur code, so having money certainly helped! The OHA also seemed more determined than other provincial leagues to maintain a gentlemanly style of play, which, sadly, didn’t help from a competitive standpoint.

The Winnipeg Victorias’ Stanley Cup portrait from 1901.

In these early days, the need for natural ice meant hockey seasons only stretched from late December to mid March. Train travel meant leagues had to be fairly local, so in order to make the Stanley Cup available to teams all across Canada, the senior champions of any recognized provincial association were able to challenge the current Cup champion. Games could take place before the season, after the season, and even right in the middle of a season. Hence the scheduling of the games in Winnipeg between the Victorias and the Wellingtons for January 21 and 23, with a third game, if necessary, on the 25th. When the Victorias requested that the Stanley Cup series be played later in January, the Wellingtons objected because the bankers on their team had to get back to Toronto in time to balance their books for the first of February.

From the March 1902 edition of The Canadian Magazine.

Obviously, this was a different time … but hockey and the Stanley Cup were hugely popular!

There was, of course, no television or radio in those days, but it was already common for people to meet in public places to listen to someone read out play-by-play reports sent from rinkside by telegraph to newspapers, or for fans to make telephone calls to those newspapers’ offices for score updates. When the Wellingtons traveled to Winnipeg, the OHA’s Toronto-based president John Ross Robertson arranged a novel new way for the fans at home to know what happened.

With the time difference from the West, it was thought that final scores from the Stanley Cup games would be received by telegraph around 11 o’clock or 11:30 at night. When they were, the Toronto Railway Company would blow its big whistle to signal the results: two blasts for a win by the Wellingtons; three would mean victory for the Victorias.

Stories from the Toronto Star and Globe about the whistle used to deliver the results.

Though few people outside of Toronto gave the Wellingtons a chance in Winnipeg, they surprised their critics by keeping the games close and playing pretty good hockey. Still, the Victorias took the January 21 game 5-3 and won the second game by the same score two nights later, giving Winnipeg a sweep of the series. “We played as hard as we ever played in our lives,” said Wellingtons captain George McKay, “but the checking … was much harder than we were accustomed to. It was fierce.” The players on the Victorias were also said to be faster skaters.

The Toronto Star, January 25, 1902.

Despite losing their Stanley Cup series, the Wellingtons returned to Toronto and would end the 1901–02 season with their third straight OHA championship. They would win the title again the next year, but passed on another Stanley Cup challenge and withdrew from hockey suddenly and surprisingly just prior to the 1903-04 season.

As for the Victorias, playing a short four-game season in Manitoba against their only senior rival, the Winnipeg Hockey Club, the team went 4-and-0 to win its its tenth consecutive provincial championship in 1902. But after defeating Toronto in January, the Victorias lost the Stanley Cup to the Montreal Hockey Club from the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association that March.

So, while the Maple Leafs are going on to 55 years without the Stanley Cup, the Jets are looking to win Winnipeg’s first in 119 years.

Toronto-Montreal Playoff History

I was 3 1/2 years old when Toronto beat Montreal to win the Stanley Cup in 1967. I don’t remember it. (My hockey memories don’t kick in until after I saw my first game, at Maple Leaf Gardens in December of 1970.) But I remember well when the two teams met in 1978 and 1979. The Leafs of Sittler, McDonald, and Williams, Salming, Turnbull, and Palmateer are the true teams of my youth — and they were good teams too. Still, there was no way they were going to beat the Canadiens back then. Hard to believe its been 42 years!

Plenty of people have been waxing nostalgic recently with this renewal of the Leafs-Canadiens rivalry. So, I figured, why not me? But I’m going back a lot further than I can remember. Further, probably, than anyone can remember even if they were alive at the time. The two oldest franchises in the NHL have met in the playoffs 15 times (the Canadiens lead 8-7) going all the way back to the first Toronto-Montreal NHL series at the end of the first season in league history.

Toronto’s NHL team – depicted here in the Vancouver Daily World on January 17, 1918, – wore the same blue sweaters with a white T as the Toronto team in the old NHA.

The NHL had four teams when the 1917–18 season started, but just three when it ended. (The Montreal Wanderers withdrew from the league in January of 1918 after fire destroyed the Montreal Arena.) The season was played into two halves, with the Canadiens coming out best in the first half with a 10–4 record. Toronto topped the second-half standings with a record of 5–3. The playoff meeting between the two half-champions was a two-game, total-goals series played on March 11 and March 13, 1918.

Back in those days, the Canadiens were already known as the Canadiens, as they had been since the team was formed for the inaugural season of the National Hockey Association (forerunner of the NHL) in 1909-10. You can pick a pretty good fight with a hockey historian as to what the Toronto team was called. They’ve gone down in history as the Toronto Arenas, and they were operated that season by the Toronto Arena Company, but probably didn’t take that name officially until the 1918–19 season. The team had been known as the Blue Shirts (two words) or Blueshirts (one word) during its time in the NHA, and most journalists were still using one of those spellings — or referring to them as the Blues, or Torontos — during the 1917–18 NHL season.

The Toronto Star of March 14, 1918 refers to the team
as the Torontos and the Blue Shirts (two words).

“The hockey week here opens to-night with the first of the NHL play-off series between Torontos and Canadiens,” reported the Toronto Star on March 11, 1918. “The Blue Shirts, with the exception of Reg Noble, are in excellent shape for the final struggle, and are confident that they will take a three or four-goal lead to Montreal with them for the final game on Wednesday night.”

Another unnamed Star sports writer wasn’t so sure.

“When it comes to a real showdown,” read the column known as Random Notes on Current Sports, “Canadiens are the logical favorites for the NHL championship. They have shown themselves to be a real team – fast, brainy, and game – and many Toronto fans will be back them to win right here to-night.”

The Ottawa Journal calls Toronto the Blues and the Blueshirts (one word).

But the Toronto players were right. The Blue Shirts/Blueshirts/Arenas won game one by a score of 7–3.

“It is a fortunate thing, indeed, for Les Bons Canadiens that both matches of the NHL play-off series do not take place in Toronto,” said Elmer Ferguson of the Montreal Herald on March 12, 1918. “You’d never know the old club from its play on Toronto ice last night, compared with its dash and brilliance in games played before the friendly faces at Jubilee Rink. And, by the same token, you’d never recognize the meek and inoffensive team wearing the blue shirts which we’ve been accustomed to seeing in the rampaging, aggressive and chip-on-the-shoulder gang which rode roughshod over our habitants last night.”

In the Ottawa Citizen, it’s Blue Shirts (two words) as well
as the team’s official name: the Toronto Hockey Club.

But even with a four-goal lead, hanging on to win the series in Montreal was no sure thing. As it turned out, the Canadiens won game two, but with only a 4–3 victory, so Toronto took the series 10–7 in total.

“The Canadiens chances faded away when they undertook to make the visitors quit by roughing it on every possible occasion” reported the Montreal Gazette on March 14. “Canadiens suffered through penalties… Toronto played the puck more than the man, and took the bumps handed out to them without retaliating to any great extent. This counted greatly in their favor.”

In the Vancouver Daily World, it’s Blueshirts (one word) and Torontos.

NHL summaries show that far more penalties were called in game one at Toronto. Even so, game two in Montreal must have been rougher.

“Bullfighting is prohibited in Canada for the reason that it is considered brutal,” wrote Harvey Sproule (a future Toronto NHL head coach, briefly, in 1919–20) in the Toronto Star, “but it is a regular ‘pink tea’ in comparison with the Donnybrook served up to the fans at the Jubilee Ice Palace last night…”

The official team portrait refers to Toronto as the Arena Hockey Club …
but it’s clearly been dated for the 1918–19 NHL season.

With the win Toronto took the NHL championship, but not yet the Stanley Cup. Winning the NHL title that season only entitled the Blue Shirts/Blueshirts/Arenas to host the Pacific Coast Hockey Association champion Vancouver Maroons (who wore maroon-coloured shirts) in a best-of-five Stanley Cup Final. Toronto won that series 3-games-to-2 with a 2-1 victory in the finalé on March 30, 1918 to claim what was already a prized trophy.

And this year?

I think Toronto is good enough to win in four games, but probably five. Then again, if Leafs goalie Jack Campbell can’t carry the playoff weight, and the Canadiens’ Carey Price can turn back the clock … well, let’s just say I wouldn’t want to trust Freddie Andersen in another seventh game!

Famous Jewish Sports Legends…

I haven’t posted anything since March. I’d been pretty busy until recently. In February, I started conversations with Firefly Books (for whom I’ve written several) about something new for their Hockey Hall of Fame series. They wanted something less stats-driven than most of their recent books … and they wanted it fast! So, in early March, I started writing and I delivered a lengthy manuscript at the end of April. It was quite the crunch.

The new book is called Hockey Hall of Fame True Stories. It’ll be out in November. And it’ll be a lot like the stories I post here. Some are actually re-writes of stories I’ve already posted. Many of the new ones would make great posts too … except it seems silly to “scoop” the book at this point. I’m sure you’ll hear more about this from me in the fall.

Meanwhile, there’s nothing about this story that’s so compelling I had to write it now, but I don’t like to stay away too long, and I thought it was sort of interesting since it demonstrates the twists and turns my research (I’m sure lots of people’s research!) often take. Also, I recently discovered that May is Canadian Jewish Heritage Month in Canada. So, there’s that too.

Martin Rosenthal as he appeared in the “Silver Seven” Stanley Cup photo circa 1904.

I rarely write about anything Jewish — although the very first thing I ever had published was a story about shtetl life that I wrote in my grade six religious school class and was printed in the Temple Har Zion bulletin. And just last week, I said to a few different people that I think I care less about Jews in sports than many other Jewish sports fans. But, I do like history, so I’ve long been aware of Martin Rosenthal and his role as an executive with the Ottawa Hockey Club from about 1901 until 1918.

The Rosenthal family, I’m told by my colleague Irv Osterer of Ottawa, was a pioneering Ottawa Jewish family. Aaron Rosenthal, Martin’s father, was born in Germany circa 1835. Aaron’s wife, the former Bertha Lehman, was also German, born in 1850. According to Aaron’s obituary in 1909, he spent much of his young life in Australia, India, and other countries. Martin was born in 1873 in Kent, England. Genealogical records show the family arrived in Quebec City on June 21, 1874. After settling in Montreal, the Rosenthals came to Ottawa around 1878.

Aaron Rosenthal was a jeweller, and several of his sons followed him into the business. In addition to the Jewish causes Aaron and Bertha supported (or created) in Ottawa, the family was very sports-minded too. Martin and his older brothers, Harry and Samuel, all played hockey at a fairly high level. And the family business supplied club pins to many Ottawa sports organizations too. After Martin got involved in management with the hockey team soon to be known as the “Silver Seven,” tickets to games were often sold through the Rosenthal business, and the Stanley Cup was sometimes displayed in the store window. (The building still exists, as the Birks Building, in Ottawa’s downtown Sparks Street Mall.)

From the Ottawa Citizen on August 3, 1900.

In doing my brief research on Rosenthal, I discovered that Martin didn’t seem to be very Jewish by the end of his life. His children had married outside the faith, his funeral was handled by a non-Jewish funeral home, he was buried in the Beechwood cemetery … and the service was officiated by a reverend. His obviously non-Jewish funeral, in fact, caused me to wonder if maybe the Rosenthal family wasn’t Jewish, but only German, and launched me into my brief genealogical search.

Clearly, the Rosenthal family WAS Jewish. Aaron and Berth had very strong ties to Jewish life in Ottawa. But Martin definitely shared fewer and fewer of those ties over the years.

Martin Rosenthal’s parents from newspaper stories at the times of their deaths.

In the the Canadian censuses in 1881, 1891, and 1901, when Martin Rosenthal still lived with his parents, the family is recorded as “Hebrew” or “Jewish.” By 1911, he’s married and has started a family of his own. The listing is tricky to find because the name has been transcribed incorrectly, but Martin, his wife, Mary, and son, Lionel, are all listed as Jewish. In 1921, Martin, Mary, Lionel, a daughter named Phyllis, and another son named Malcolm, all have “Jewish” listed as their religion … but for everyone except Martin, it’s been crossed out.

Sections of the Rosenthal entry from the 1921 Canadian census.

When Mary died two years later in 1923 (at about 52 years of age), her funeral service was conducted by Reverend T.E. Holling of St. Paul’s Methodist church. So, were Mary Belle Rosenthal (nee Adams) and her children every really Jewish?

Maybe.

Probably.

But I don’t know.

The Marriage record of Martin Rosenthal and Mary Adams. Perhaps she took Ruth as her Hebrew name if she did actually convert? (Religious denominations for the bride aren’t filled out for any of the three women married by Solomon Jacobs on this page.)

As you can see above, Mary Adams married Martin Rosenthal on October 10, 1905. They were wed in Toronto, and the record shows the marriage was performed by Solomon Jacobs. Though that name meant nothing to me, I do know that even now, it’s hard to find a rabbi to perform the ceremony for a “mixed marriage.” Solomon Jacobs certainly sounded like a Jewish name. But was he a rabbi?

He most certainly was!

British-born, and a rabbi to the once-flourishing Jewish community in Jamaica for 15 years, Solomon Jacobs became the rabbi at Holy Blossom synagogue in Toronto in 1901 and served until his death in 1920.

Because Rabbi Jacobs spoke English so well (I suppose most other Toronto rabbis at the time were from Eastern Europe and probably spoke Yiddish as their first language), he was often called on when newspapers were looking for the Jewish perspective on issues in Toronto. He seems to have been quite liberal in his views, but was able to keep the peace between older, Orthodox members of Holy Blossom and the younger Toronto Jews who would later push the synagogue toward the Reform movement.

Rabbi Solomon Jacobs.

Rabbi Jacobs seems like a fascinating guy. (Google him if you care to!) Still, he doesn’t strike me as someone who would have performed the marriage of Martin Rosenthal and Mary Adams unless she had converted to Judaism. But I don’t know that.

Still, for me, the connection (albeit brief) of Martin Rosenthal to Holy Blossom was particularly interesting. My family has a very long affiliation with that synagogue. On my father’s side, my Zweig grandparents were deeply involved there for years and years, and on my mother’s side, several of my Freedman and Rosen aunts, uncles, and cousins, are still members to this day. My earliest Jewish life began at Holy Blossom with Rabbi Gunther Plaut and then Rabbi Michael Stroh, a friend of my parents who presided over some of my first “lifecycle” events at Holy Blossom before moving to Har Zion, where he later performed the ceremonies at my bar mitzvah, my wedding, my father’s funeral, and many other family events as well.

So, in a strange way (and even though he seems to have fallen much further from the faith than I ever have or likely will), all of this feels like it has given my a bit of a “six degrees of separation” connection to Martin Rosenthal, and therefore to the Ottawa Silver Seven … which is kind of neat for someone like me.

This is the new book that will be out in November. One of three I’ve got due in the fall!

(Oh, and the title of this story… It’s a bit of a joke based on the leaflet handed out to the old woman in the movie Airplane! when she asked if there was something light to read…)